Novelties No More

The novelty of women in sports is wearing thin.  And that’s a good thing.

Brittney Griner, after a crushing Sweet 16 defeat ended her career, found herself filling headlines instead of the lane when Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban floated the possibility of choosing her in the men’s NBA draft.

Experts quickly weighed in on the odds that Cuban would truly do it, with a consensus that the chances were as slim as Brittney herself.  Indeed, her slimness made it unlikely that she would have met much success in the NBA; her lightest would-be teammate on the Mavs outweighs her by five pounds and stands eight inches shorter.  This female player at this time is probably not the trailblazer (lower case “T”) that the league may one day employ, but with a few multiple-dunk games, she took the laughability right out of the idea.

And if anyone can generate buzz, it’s Cuban.  Pieces like this would have once been considered absurd.  Now that the Mavs have cracked the door, it’s downright plausible.

Admittedly, Griner is a once-in-generation athlete.  But it’s always been some single dominant player that shakes up the scene of an entire sport.  In 1980, who would have pictured the international profile taken on by so many professional sports?  Before Kukoc, before Boll, before Nomo, there was teenage prodigy Masanori Murakami, who pitched a scoreless inning in a relief role for the Giants in 1964.

Murakami’s dominance brought him to the states, and Griner’s put her on Cuban’s radar.  Today there are players from Japan, the Sudan, the Czech Republic, and countless others populating pro sports teams in the US, and some of the credit must trace back to Murakami.  Griner may one day be viewed the same way.

Indeed, the overall trend is upward in women’s sports.  Rather than a narrow spear of attack tipped by Griner and others, the movement is more like an ocean wave pushing ashore.  My female schoolmates in the ’80s arrived at basketball practice in old T-shirts from church groups or country music concerts.  Today, custom-printed performance clothing by and other custom t-shirt companies are offering more in cuts and colors that female shoppers want.

Griner isn’t surfing that wave alone.  In auto racing, which is considered a male dominated sport, a petite brunette by the name of Danica Patrick led the field to the green flag in NASCAR’s signature event, the Daytona 500.  The breakthrough sold a great deal of newspapers and lit up social media, but when she finished the race in 8th place there was proof that on the sport’s biggest stage with its best performers, a woman could certainly compete, not just survive.

There will be more.  Every day another skinny little girl feels the shock of bat versus ball for the first time and thinks, “I like this.”  Somebody’s daughter banks a too-big orange ball into the net and feels a surge of triumph.  A go-kart fires up and pigtailed little Kaitlyn or Megan or Carly loves the roar and can’t wait to unleash it.

Those girls are watching their horizons widen, because the pioneers of their sports have chiseled away at old ideas and sculpted them into a welcoming world of competition.  The female athlete is slowly just becoming an athlete, and what she will do will amaze us.

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